National Zoo panda: Answering kids’ questions about about the D.C. panda cub

September 17, 2012

What’s black and white and read about all over?

In case you haven’t heard, that riddle is our way of telling you that a baby panda was born Sunday night at the National Zoo in Washington. This is huge news for the zoo and all of Washington because the last time a giant panda cub was born was seven years ago, in July of 2005, when Tai Shan (pronounced tie-SHON) was born. Tai Shan is now living in China. Here are some things you might be wondering about regarding the zoo’s newest addition.

What does it look like?

Only panda mom Mei Xiang (pronounced may SHONG) knows for sure. Even zookeepers have caught only a passing glimpse of the cub on a Web camera in the panda den, or home. But our riddle at the beginning of this story was a little misleading. Panda cubs aren’t black and white when they’re born. They’re pink, have next to no hair, are blind and are about the length of your mom or dad’s hand. The cub weighs about the same as a stick of butter (or a quarter of a pound!).

Is it healthy?

Zookeepers haven’t been able to examine the cub, but they have heard it squealing, which is a good sign. “It’s very loud. A high-pitched, very loud squeal. It’s surprisingly loud for a little critter,” said zoo Director Dennis Kelly. Mei Xiang is being a very good mother, cuddling the cub whenever it cries. “What I’m looking at is really good mothering behavior,” said Don Moore, an associate director at the zoo. But zoo officials warn that baby pandas are very small, fragile creatures and they’ll be watching closely for signs that the cub is doing well.

Is it a boy or a girl?

Again, only Mei Xiang — if anyone — knows that at this point.

It’s great that the panda cub was born, but why is this a bigger deal than other zoo animal births?

There are a couple of reasons. First, pandas are so cute. (Sorry we had to say that; no offense intended to other zoo babies). The real reason is that pandas are listed as being “threatened” for extinction. There are about 1,600 in the wild and about 300 in zoos, mostly in China. Another reason why it’s a big deal for us in Washington is that Mei Xiang and panda dad Tian Tian (pronounced tee-YEN tee-YEN) have had only one baby (Tai Shan) despite many failed attempts for Mei Xiang to get pregnant. The more years that go by, the less likely it is that Mei Xiang could have a cub.

When can we see it?

Well, you’re not likely to see Mei Xiang or the baby on exhibit at the zoo for at least several weeks. With permission from a grown-up, you may want to try to watch one of the zoo’s panda cams (go to www.
nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/giantpandas
). It may take several tries to actually get a camera to load since it seems like EVERYONE wants to have a chance to see the cub.

DRAW a picture of the panda and send it to us

— Tracy Grant

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